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Archive for June, 2011

Hello there!  Just as a quick update, I’ve gone back to Collegetimes.us to blog for them with some entertainment/technology stuff so some of my reviews/articles might creep up there (but I’ll always link it back from here in case anyone is interested).  More likely than not, I’ll bring one side over from the other as well in the future!  For now, I’ve updated the collegetimes side with the ‘Green Lantern’ review which can be found here http://collegetimes.us/green-lantern-how-to-regress-the-superhero-genre/.

Below, I’ve updated with a ‘Cars 2’ review.  Enjoy!

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Director: John Lasseter
Rated: G
Running Time: 112 Minutes

There are few film studios or creative minds that capture a loyal following.  Spielberg to Nolan are a few examples of those that capture that loyal fanbase.  Pixar is another highly coveted creative team that has time and time again surprised audiences, including myself, with a rich film base.  Of course, a perfect track record is a pipe dream and Pixar has had a few shares of minor disappointments.  However, many are calling Cars 2  one of their worst to date.  Is that truly the case?  In my own opinion, I do not believe Cars 2 is the most groan-worthy Pixar film to date, but its emphasis on appealing to its merchandise-buying children consumer base definitely squanders much of the appeal many of its best films have.

Cars 2 follows Lightning Mcqueens (Owen Wilson) and Mater the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy) from the first movie’s Radiator Springs to a global trip around the world.  Lightning is invited to take part in a brand new global grand prix hosted by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard).  However, when both Lightning and Mater arrive at the first location, they are about to unknowingly step into a large espionage plot between an evil group of cars and British intelligence led by Finn McMissile (Michael Caine).  A story of spy versus spy and car versus car ensues.

What does work in Cars 2 favor is Pixar’s incredible visual prowess.  It may sound like a broken record in all my Pixar reviews, but the amount of detail and wonderful animation given to all the cars, environment and…well, everything is astounding to watch.  The fact that the setting constantly changes to different worldwide markers, along with the zany spy theme, gives the film such a visual edge that is still unmatched in the industry.  In fact, that constant variety really makes the film better than its predecessor, which had trouble making the plot move anywhere.  Lasseter created scenarios that are fairly outrageous and bombastic.

Yet these varying scenarios fail to give the film much depth with the plot points feeling like marketing devices than meaningful story arcs.  While the first Cars moped for a fairly long time in a stale environment like Radiator Springs, Cars 2 zooms across so many locales while failing to create any original insight or purpose.  Sure, Lasseter is playing on the spy themes with his car characters, but instead of feeling playful or meaningful, these throwbacks feel so stereotypical and overplayed.  Visual gags and ‘adult’ humor are more the trademark of other animation studios, yet Pixar resorts to these all too often to create some type of excitement before moving on to the next set piece.

Perhaps that has to do with the focus on Mater and the repetitive themes that appear from the previous film.  More annoying than funny, Mater is frustrating to watch as a central character because the supposed growth or depth that the story arc takes with him only works on a very rudimentary level.  Identity and acceptance are good moral values, but character relationships again feel superficial and, dare I say it, on the level of a Saturday morning cartoon.  And perhaps that was Lasseter’s purpose: to rekindle a simple and ridiculous set-up.  Yet with themes that seem to have already been done and away from the prior film and characters that seemed to have regressed into simpler tones than had been shown before, Cars 2 becomes a disappointing conglomeration of disparate acts than a strong and wonderful melody enjoyable by both young and old.

Cars 2 really is not a terrible film as many critics make it out to be.  It simply is an average Pixar film which makes it so terrible in many of its critics and fans’ minds.  However, it is perhaps a bit depressing that Pixar went down the route to simply create a film to cater towards simply its merchandise-driven consumer base (which was just as apparent from the film’s Toy Story inspired short).  This is the reason why many audiences are, in the end, disappointed; we expect better of Pixar to create entertainment that is more than mindless drivel with visual gags.  We expect to think as much as we consume and that is the greatest shame of Cars 2.  

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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http://www.youtube.com/t/youtube_rentals

How in the hell do you make money online?  That is the daunting question that any digital entrepreneur is trying to grapple with at the moment.  The ‘make an idea first and figure out how to make a money later’ model that has been so prevalent in the Silicon Valley industry has taken its toll at times.  Youtube has started to initiate its ‘Youtube Rental’ beta program throughout its videos.  This ability gives content creators the ability to enact rental fees on their videos starting from .99 cents and up for a period of time that can also be designated.

For me personally and some reddit and forum viewers, it came as a huge shock when it was added to Rebecca Black’s infamous Friday music video.  $2.99 to be able to view the video over and over.  What does this mean for the general audience and content creators?  I thought I’d create a brief list of my thoughts:

Pros:

-Youtube Rentals gives another option for content creators to monetize their content.  Digital content providers have been struggling with monetary issues with making some of value out of content online.  Pop-up ads, banner ads, in-video static ads and more are just a few of the experiments that are in the wild.  However, a true successful digital business model still is not completely there.  The Youtube Rental service is a somewhat follow up step in empowering the content user to find another way to monetize off of their content.

-The program begins to open the door to monetizing longer-form content that may not have been possible to include previously.  Individual content providers that may have been turned off by the meager ad revenue system previously can now include a much more customizable suite of features that are available in the Youtube Movies section and pushes how content can be viewable if perhaps the content is more in line with a movie length or television show.

Cons:

-The bite-sized, rental business model is outdated and outmoded.  Although iTunes is probably an example of a well-to-do bite-sized business model on the digital side, the move has gone away from this one-size model to a move to a one-size-fits-all monetary system as showcased by Netflix.  Especially on a per rental basis that has a limited viewing period, the value proposition for the product comparably makes little sense with the competition or placed side-by-side with other platforms.  For the most part, the competition is free, ad-supported content or a bulk package deal (ie Hulu Plus) or cheaper (and better valued) content (ie an iTunes song that costs .99 cents that I can play and own indefinitely).

-The rental system doesn’t fit the brand of Youtube.  Youtube has a distinct problem in that its own brand meaning does not really follow this rental line of thinking.  User empowerment, a digital archive, and a social community are a few of the traits that really mold Youtube into the go-to source for web videos.  Rentals limit viewership, creates a type of digital divide in terms of web censorship, and hinders community outreach/inreach.  True, the rental bulletpoint is simply an option in which content providers can put onto their videos, yet it seems so opposite to what it means to the brand message and the users.  Why would I pay $2.99 for a music video to view for one to two days only when I will be unable to share it with my friends, view it anytime I want, and be able to embed it for as long as I want on any websites I am a part of?

All in all, the intention is perhaps in the right place.  However, the end result of Youtube Rentals is a bit misguided in forgetting its origins and its audience.  There are better ways to both expand Youtube viewers, monetization, and brand value, but I’ll save that for another day.

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Director: JJ Abrams
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 112 minutes

Inspiration.  Lack of creativity.  Originality.  Dearth of uniquness.  These oxymoron-like terms are the constnat back-and-forth struggle that lies within any artform, especially true in today’s Hollywood industry, and an issue that I have constantly encountered as a viewer and a critic.  A former film professor of mine once commented how originality does not exist; instead, it is only a re-thinking of what existed before.  However, where does that line start and end?  Super 8, from Spielberg and Abrams, will most likely evoke those same feelings of both nostalgia and a question of how much this film retreads themes already well explored.  In the end however, I believe the duo has succeeded in creating a successful marriage of both nostalgic throwbacks and a visceral experience that is currently one of the summer (if not currently the year’s) best films yet.

Super 8 follows Joe (Joel Courtney), the town deputy’s son living in a small Ohio town.  With only his father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) to take care of him, he goes off often with his small ragtag group of friends, from the pyromaniac Cary (Ryan Lee) to the aspiring young filmmaker Charles (Riley Griffiths), they set out to make a monster film to win the local film festival.  After inviting Alice (Ellen Fanning) to play a wife character, the kids go out to the train yard to film a scene but unbeknownst to them, a US air force train is passing by and crashes.  Soon, the group is entangled in a top-secret incident that will involve all of them including an unknown force that entangles everyone.

Some audience members will comment that Super 8 lacks a solid villanious force and is heavily reliant on both Spieblerg and Abrams’ past films.  The main villain, other than the strange being that is terrorizing the town, is the military.  Their motivations are explained briefly, but they are shown as more of a means to an end.  Even the main leader of the force, Nelec, is simply a stereotypical evil man with little explaining his motivation in his pursuit.  This lack of characterization spills over a bit to the terrorizing creature itself which is not given much time to come into its own and makes the climax a bit harder to swallow.  This point links with how much Super 8 relies on the past of its creative forces and the question is whether or not it attempts to try to recreate these nostalgic experiences too much.  Some scenes, as the one near the end with the creature or the final scene involving Joe and Jackson, veer a bit too hard on trying to evoke past memories than relying on the strength of their own merits, and for those in the know, this tends to happen sporadically throughout.

Yet on the other hand, Super 8′s core is well-made in nearly all its aspects and creates a wonderful film to enjoy.  The core plot, for instance, is well thought-out, even coming from the combination of two disparate original stories.  The monster plot is well-paced and although follows that classic Jaws formula along with the small town setting, the visual bravado and the oddities that come with the creature create a suspsenful setting throughout.  On the other side is the emotional core of the father-son and friendship plots.  The Goonies is an obvious throwback but even though the group dynamic is similar, the filming background actually ties the disparate plot threads together well all the way until the very end of the film.  Backed up by some terrific acting from both the main and supporting cast, a bevy of emotions from drama to mystery to comedy are all included with a plot to care about, an important feature usually missing in many summer blockbusters.  In addition, the aesthetic trappings on all grounds are well-done.  The special effect work is top-notch with the initial scene to start the action at the train yard being a scene stealer.  The cinematography is gorgeous with some beautiful sweeps and pull-backs that both signify the beauty of the era and the scale of a situation of any scene, from the terrifying to the mundane, which is all given a nice visual filter with a colder color palette evoking the time period.  Finally, the soundtrack, surprisigly not from John Williams, comes from the other great and underrated composer Michael Giacchio which is definitely bombastic but not annoyingly placed and well-themed.

Super 8 is a very solid film all around that does not sacrifice its plot for intensity.  Does the film necessarily succeed in all of its goals?  Perhaps not, but the end product has enough heart and flair that ends up creating a unique film from all the parts it takes inspiration from.  It is a film that misses some of the old tricks and elements from movies long past and entangles them with newer ideas.  And much as Joe and the gang can attest, Super 8 is an inspirational text for future and current filmmakers with great dreams and ideas.  

The Wie muses: **** out of *****

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Director: Matthew Vaughn
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 132 Minutes

The X-Men films and I have a unique history.  I was immensely impressed with the first two entries from Bryan Singer; films that really started to usher in the comic book genre film.  The third film however started a steep downward trend that was too convoluted and poorly directed along with the terrible Wolverine spin-off.   Suffice to say, since the first’s films release as well, a slew of quality comic book films have also arrived.  First Class has a lot to live up to.  In fact, X-Men First Class is a fairly good film that utilizes its prequel roots to both be interesting and fresh although hitting a slew of not-so-good decisions.

X-Men: First Class follows a group of mutants who meet in the most unexpected way against a common enemy.  Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a recent graduate who studied mutation and with a young mutant he interacted with when he was younger, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).  Soon, their paths cross with the CIA as they team up to fight against a common enemy, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  After discovering Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) struggling against him, Charles creates a team of mutants to fight against him.

The greatest struggle that First Class has is in being a quality product both in terms of its aesthetic and intrinsic qualities.  First and foremost is the acting.  McAvoy, Fassebender, and Bacon do fine in their roles and display a good range of emotion and wit with a few exceptions.  However, the majority of the other cast members are fairly hit or miss with some lackluster and uninspired performances, which drag down some of the film’s quieter scenes.  Even worse are some of the costumes and special effects.  There are great examples of some great setpieces such as the climax to some better artistic effort in the vision of the costumes such as with Charles Xavier and Sebastian Shaw.  Perhaps due to budgetary constraints or simply just trying to differentiate the film, the vision becomes fairly strange or ugly such as Raven’s overall mutant costume or the special effects of Angel.

Yet these detriments definitely do not overshadow the positive elements of the film.  The greatest achievement of First Class is just being well directed with a consistent and fun style.   Utilizing its Cold War backdrop gives the film a lot of leeway in giving the film a consistent sense of style whether it is in its cinematography or editing or script.  The stylistic choices are campy in their own ways at times but never feel forced and instead give the film a lot of flavor that makes it all the more memorable and lead to some great set piece action sequences that are intriguing as the audience tries to figure out where Vaughn will go next with the crazy plot.  These choices lead into the heady issues the film tackles as well.  Although some of the acting gets in the way of properly conveying such sequences, issues from racism to equal rights all get addressed and much like X-Men 2 successfully did, First Class always feels like it is creating interesting ideas out of supernatural situations, especially headed up by two strong characters and actors, Charles and Erik.

If you were frightened off by the past two horrible X-Men features (or for any reason, you were a fan), X-Men: First Class is a good return to form as a character-driven and dramatic superhero movie that has enough self-conscious to not be overly melodramatic.  There are some not-so-great acting involved along with some lackluster special effects peppered throughout, but a strong script and style make it a worthwhile superhero movie for any fan of the genre.  The strength of this movie creates an interesting scenario for how future period super hero pieces will play out in the (very near) future.    

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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Director: Woody Allen
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 100 Minutes

Directors and writers are fascinated with cities of all types.  Small, large, cosmopolitan, rural; some of the best films can create feelings of all types by fixating themselves within the city and truly weaving an unforgettable journey within.  Paris has been a constant location of exposure and has been home to many great films that really represent both the city’s values and shows situations and emotions that have never been thought of before.  Woody Allen’s anticipated, Midnight in Paris, is another film to add to this category.  A much more fantastical entry than many may think, Midnight may not be Allen’s most emotive and insightful film but is still a fascinating watch that represents both the city’s magical past and a message to artists.

Midnight in Paris follows Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) as they explore Paris after deciding to stop by to congratulate a business deal made between Inez’s father (Kurt Fuller) and another company.  Gil, an aspiring novelist and former screenwriter, has become fascinated with the city and after the couple run into Inez’s old friend, Paul (Michael Sheen), Gil takes off on his own during the late hours to roam the streets of Paris to find inspiration for his upcoming novel.  Accidentally, he stumbles into a car and partakes in an adventure and meets some larger than life literary figures.  In both a journey of sanity and inspiration, audiences are taken into a strange and intriguing character study.

The film’s biggest source of debate will be in its plot direction and some content.  Hopefully, the story will not come out as a surprise to any reader by now (or from any preview or trailer), but it goes in fantastical directions that is core to the story and experience.  Some audience members that come into the film expecting a more real and grounded experience are going to have a difficult time taking this in.  Perhaps it is because of the marketing or the direction that Allen takes with the plot progression, but I do feel it is a real issue because of some trouble transitioning the story style which will alienate viewers that do not accept the plot when it finally does transition.  Additionally, characterizations are limited in terms of most of the periphery characters, especially those associated with the ‘real world.’ They feel oddly hollow and one-sided than interesting and mature as many of the great Allen characters are.

However, to those that can get past these points, Midnight delivers a witty, fun, and insightful adventure.  The main characters are well developed and thought out.  Gil, especially, is such a wonderful centerfold, embodying Woody Allen himself and what it must have been like for him to walk through Paris as an outsider and the artistic inspirations he receives from the city.  Speaking of the city, as many successful films do, Allen breathes so much life into Paris itself as well.  Especially as changes start to happen within the city, Allen does not hold back on showing off his love and respect of the locales and history which translates to Gil’s obsession with them.  The cinematography, while not grand or unique, lovingly lingers on these locales to further emphasize this point, especially in the introduction.  And finally, all of these positive points can be attributed to the sharp writing.  Even the slightly zanier sections where Gil meets the larger than life figures never feels like it devolves into slapstick or complete lunacy.  There are laughs to be had ,but they come out of both the initial shock factor and some clever connections with the core plot device (that viewers will have to find out themselves), and smarlty connects with the characters’ core personalities and growth.  Issues of artistic inspiration, cosmopolitanism, and love are all taken and examined with some touching and intriguing results.

Midnight in Paris is a good Allen film that takes a city and creates an artistic interpretation of both the cities values and his own.  Some viewers might be off-put by the plot’s wacky set-up and the ensuing chaos along with a few skimpy characterizations and plot conventions.  However, what these viewers may miss is the fascinating character that Allen has created out of the city of Paris and how natural it feels to interplay it with the likes of a stellar cast and sharp writing.  Allen captures the stories a city can have and weaves a tale around an exciting and vibrant history of one location.  Much like Gil and all the major artists that have come before, he creates an inspired story that only those with that same fascination and mystique will seemingly appreciate.   

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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